Small Insect’s Big Lessons for the Farm Bill: Agroecology and Breeding Top Monsanto’s Industrial Agriculture

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | August 26, 2013, 9:06 am EDT
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My last post discussed the success of public sector scientists who discovered and developed genes in soybean, using conventional breeding, that confer resistance to the invasive soybean aphid. These insects cost US farmers billions of dollars per year.

In contrast, an article in the New York Times in late July used the dramatic example of citrus greening disease, which is threatening the citrus industry in the US, to tout the possibility of GE to remedy challenging pest problems. Whether these will eventually work is far from certain. But we should keep in mind that while such future promises catch the public’s eye, breeding continuously makes significant advances in crop improvement.

Soybean aphids, and invasive pest casing billions of dollars of damage per year. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

Soybean aphids, and invasive pest casing billions of dollars of damage per year. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

We also need to take claims that genes are not available to crop breeders against pests like citrus greening with a grain of salt. For example, it was claimed that resistance genes to papaya ringspot virus did not exist, while GE provided resistance to the virus in Hawaii. That has long been a favorite story of biotechnology advocates of the value of GE over breeding. But overall, the reality is very different, with breeding producing new commercially useful traits all the time, while so far new engineered traits have been scarce.

And, more specifically, breeders have found promising genes that may turn out to be as (or more) effective than the engineered gene used in Hawaii to combat papaya ringspot virus. Even the possibility of breeding for resistance to citrus greening (or, at least the insect that transmits it) has recently been demonstrated.

The biggest limitation for breeders is often not the technology, but the dearth of funding available for breeding of crops other than major grains. Limited resources have been available to look for useful genes, and to develop new crop varieties with them. More effort—i.e., public research funding—would increase the prospects for success.

As an agricultural scientist, I am interested in what works more than bells and whistles. GE may have a role to play, especially in crop research, but let’s keep things in perspective.

Breeding may complement sustainable agriculture

Part of that perspective is the need to fundamentally transform agriculture to make it more resilient to climate change, respond to new pests, conserve scarce resources like water and phosphorus, reduce environmental impacts, and establish food sovereignty. In other words, we must make a serious effort to develop ecologically-sound agriculture systems that address the huge shortcomings of industrial monoculture agriculture. And, like industrial ag, it must be highly productive.

Agroecology provides the principles and practices to accomplish this, and breeding and agroecology can work together. Research on soybean aphid resistance breeding and the value of natural aphid enemies in diverse landscapes provides a good example of how this can work, and how the big ag companies are sabotaging this kind of smart, scientifically sophisticated agriculture.

Research shows that where farms are situated near uncultivated areas, natural enemies that consume soybean aphids, like ladybird beetles (AKA ladybugs), reduce the need for insecticides by about 25 to 43 percent, based on 2005 and 2006 data, compared to areas where monoculture is extensive and uncultivated areas scarce.

If soybeans resistant to aphids are deployed where good agroecological principles are used—e.g., farms embedded in uncultivated areas, using cover crops, long crop rotations, and reduced pesticides—the resulting reduced number of aphids may improve soybean yield more than crop genes alone. It also reduces the possibility that the aphids will develop resistance to the protective soybean genes. As a bonus, insecticides would not generally be needed.

Insecticides from Monsanto and friends make things worse

Instead of promoting smarter farming, the big seed and pesticide companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and Syngenta make matters worse by supporting the current industrial monoculture system, which reduces the number of natural pest enemies.

The companies treat the large majority of corn seed, and most soybean seed, with pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides. I have previously discussed how these seed treatments are likely contributing to the loss of bees–critical for food production–birds, and natural pest enemies.

Research published last year provided data that suggests that neonicotinoid seed treatment of soybean harms the very natural enemies that help keep soybean aphid under control!

On top of that, as with neonic-treated corn seed, this and other research strongly suggests that soybean seed treatment does not meaningfully control soybean aphid or other important soybean pests, or improve yield.

It’s a great deal for the seed companies, not so good for the environment, farmers, or anyone else.

The need for more public crop varieties and agroecology

In the end, we need public policies that encourage agroecology and public sector crop breeding, which makes up a small fraction of public spending on agriculture. The USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides agriculture research grants, and needs to put in place a dedicated program to develop public crop varieties to complement agrocologically-sound farming systems.

Many programs that support sustainable farming, begun under the last several farm bills, are currently under threat from a dysfunctional congress. A new Farm Bill needs to be passed that builds the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)–which supports many agroecological practices by partnering with farmers–and is slashed in the House version of the Farm Bill.

Programs stranded without funding by the current Farm Bill impasse, like the Organic Research and Education Program (OREI) need to be bolstered.

UCS and other organizations we collaborate with are working to improve the current situation. You can help by contacting your congressperson or senator, or the USDA, and tell them to support breeding and agroecology research, and pass a new Farm Bill that supports ecologically-based farming.

Update: I contacted Dr. Maureen Fitch of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, who works on both transgenic and non-transgenic resistance to papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) for an update on the efficacy of breeding efforts. The paper linked above on breeding for resistance tested the non-transgenic gene(s) against the Philippine strain of the virus, where it showed efficacy. There are several other strains that had not been tested at that time, including the Hawaiian strain. This limitation, along with other ways a gene (transgenic or not) can fail between field tests and commercialization, is why I noted that this non-transgenic gene may be as or more effective than the Hawaiian transgenic trait. According to Dr. Fitch, the non-transgenic gene appears to be ineffective against the Hawaiian strain of PRSV. Further tests are being planned for other possible non-transgenic resistance to the Hawaiian strain. The transgene that controls the Hawaiian strain of the virus is not effective against other strains. So, as  of now, there appears to be a non-transgenic gene effective against at least one important strain of PRSV not controlled by the current transgene.

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  • Steve Virgin

    Are you sure about one of your sub-headings that talks about “The Need for More Pubic Crop Varieties And Agroecology”

    Bit too sexual in nature for me. 🙂 Best Steve

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman


  • Doug Gurian-Sherman

    Thanks for the comment Gerhart. you raise some good points.

    The techniques you mention are on the cusp of being available. Certainly, using genes from the same crop species by engineering methods is done now, and site-directed insertion can be done in the lab (and perhaps some are in field trials now).

    Breeding may continue to have advantages for multiple traits and for techniques like phenotypic selection, where adaptation to regional or local environments can be done efficiently, and multiple traits are selected simultaneously. And that is very important for adaptation to climate change and specific cropping systems. Breeding is usually also much cheaper.

    In many cases, useful traits are also identified (as genetic loci) before specific genes, which would therefore make them amenable to breeding before engineering.

    It does not seem as clear that there will be differences in the speed of one approach over another. Currently, breeding and GE take about the same amount of time, although marker assisted backcrossing may give some advantages to breeding in some cases. A lot of time with any method–GE or breeding–involves field testing to make sure that a new gene/trait does not bring with it undesired negative pleiotropy, such as yield drag (yield reduction). So field testing over several years would probably still be needed. And, where tissue culture is still required to regenerate transformed plants, cisgenics can still introduce undesirable unintended mutations or epigenetic changes that need to be screened.

    On the other hand, with conventional breeding, even after multiple backcrossing, many genes from a parent plant that may code for undesirable traits will still exist in the new crop variety that contains the desired trait.

    So there are tradeoffs between the different approaches.

    So, as I noted, GE may have a role, and in some cases, as you say, may have advantages over breeding. My main concern in this blog post is that both breeding and agroecology research and development are seriously underfunded, and that needs to change.

  • Gerhart Ryffel

    Of course is agroecology and breeding a most important approach for sustainable agriculture. But it would be wrong to exclude genetic engineering (GE) per se. Nowadays there are sustainable ways to use GE to supplement or even replace classical breeding. A most prominent example is cisgenesis where resistance genes from a resistant variant or wild type plant is transferred to the cultivated variant that has optimal growth characteristics but is susceptible to a given pest. Combining cisgenesis with site directed insertion of the cisgenic resistance gene we can introduce just the resistance gene at a defined genomic locus. This has clearly a more predictable outcome than the long lasting breeding and selection over several generations. Most importantly, it does not alter the gene pool of the plant involved. Furthermore, due to the specific integration site it has a minimal effect on the genome integrity, much less than classical breeding. Thus, a careful selection of the tools of GE should not be ignored.